Sri Lanka: Portrait of a people

By Babiche Martens

Photographer Babiche Martens puts the fascinating inhabitants of Sri Lanka in the frame.

Locals ride the train through hills covered in tea plantations from Ella to Nanu-oya in Sri Lanka. Photo / Babiche Martens
Locals ride the train through hills covered in tea plantations from Ella to Nanu-oya in Sri Lanka. Photo / Babiche Martens

A morning stroll in the Sri Lanka surf town of Hikkaduwa took me down to the wharf where a hundred eyes had me acutely aware of being a European female, so I took to hiding behind my camera.

A fisherman grinned with a single tooth and beckoned for me to come over. "You see what we doing? Look!" He pointed to the hole in the bow of the boat. "Ice! For catch the fish! We fish for 12-14 days, six of us."

I looked at the tiny boat. Fourteen days? "But what do you eat?"

"Rice and curry!"

Sleep? "Come, come, I show you." He took me into the incense-filled cabin and showed me the cramped quarters, four tiny stacked bunk beds competing with various cooking utensils.

But where did the other two sleep? He motioned to the tiny floor, adding, "And the skipper he no sleep!" He laughed and slapped a youthful looking man on the back and insisted I take a photo.

The cabin had begun to heat up as it filled with curious onlookers.

The fisherman went on to explain that they weren't Buddhists which is why it was okay for them to catch fish. He showed me framed images of their gods hanging at the front of the cabin.

The pictures wore garlands and were engulfed by incense smoke. "This okay, this okay and this okay," he pointed at each picture and smiled, "not Buddha".

* * *

It was Derik, our driver, who brought us to Hikkaduwa, courtesy of a scary ride, bumping down the rough roads in the back of a van covered in surf stickers and with an industrial sized air-conditioning unit.

As we hurtled down the darkened highways, swerving people and chickens on the road, he would shout "Drunks!" after near-misses with locals standing in the middle of the road.

Drivers are an essential key to successful travel through Sri Lanka, where highways are basic and public transport slow. Derik was recommended by a friend in New Zealand who had been coming to lap up the surf in Sri Lanka for years. Taking him on was a smart move.

Next stop was Mirissa, a Sri Lankan beach stunner, where Derik recommended a beachfront resort, not our usual style but it was Christmas and accommodation was tight.

That evening the smoky delight of fish being cooked on beach barbecues lured us away from our resort dining room, with its dreary Christmas carols and boring-looking couples.

"It couldn't get more perfect," I smiled as we sat among the candlelit tables on the sand with the ocean almost tickling our feet.

From the ice-filled aluminum box that proudly displayed the daily fisherman's catch we chose two jumbo prawns and a red snapper with "special garlic sauce", salad and fries. The meal that resulted was magnificent.

Conversation was minimal as we lost ourselves in our food. Christmas fireworks went off all around. Then came complimentary golden syrup pancakes for dessert, which even my fussy companion deemed perfect.

* * *

In Yala National Park we got a jeep and a different driver, Thusaya, and asked about the possibility of seeing a leopard.

Suddenly his mobile rang, there was a rapid exchange, and all at once we were reversing at high speed, spinning in a semi-circle and were off. Nothing stood in our way as we overtook other jeeps crammed with sightseeing hopefuls, jerking and rattling over the rough track.

Thusaya stopped the jeep abruptly, jumping from the driver's seat and clinging to the frame of the car as he frantically looked around. "There, there," he said excitedly pointing.

A dozing leopard dangled high in a tree, legs and tail hanging loosely in the air, blissfully unaware of the human spectacle building beneath him. It was a chaos of cars below as we were surrounded by jeeps inching along all desperate to get a glimpse.

By this time I had lost interest in the animal and was more intrigued by how we were going to escape the tangled mess of machinery surrounding us. The diesel fumes were intoxicating and the the muddy path looked unlikely. But nothing that a bit of spinning tyres, mud flying and clouds of exhaust fumes wouldn't remedy.

"You lucky, eh?" Thusaya said smiling. "You see two leopards, some people stay in national park two, three days and no see leopard."

Our luck had begun when we first entered the park and saw a leopard crossing the road ahead of us. As we approached, the cat picked up its pace and slipped into the dense bush where it stood for a few seconds blinking its big brown eyes at us, a picture of golden stripes dappled by green.

Its interest in us was short-lived, however, and with a turn of its head it casually walked deeper into the dense bush, gone from our view forever.

* * *

Always keen to get among the locals with my camera, I expressed interest in riding the railways and Derik suggested the scenic tourist train from Ella to Nanu-oya.

As we lined up for our tickets a group of tourists had a tantrum about a couple who had apparently pushed in. "All of us have woken up early to get tickets and you just come and push in. There is a line. Get to the back of it."

It turned out the last of the first-class tickets had gone and the tourists were squabbling over the remaining second-class ones. Luckily there were enough to go around but as the train approached it became obvious that it was more equipped for third-class passengers.

By the time we boarded there was no room in second class so we quick-stepped it to the third-class kitchen carriage. It was standing room only, with more people and luggage pouring in through the windows but we didn't mind, happy to be among the locals.

The train snaked slowly through the hills looking down over smoky valleys, passing tea plantations layered into the hills like green layer cakes, while smiling women carrying white plastic bags on their heads stopped their work and waved. The vista was spectacular, postcard-perfect, with cascading waterfalls, vegetable gardens and atmospheric small villages reflecting simple life.

But I found myself being drawn to the action inside the carriage rather than out. Every time the train went through a tunnel the children screamed and howled in excitement as they plunged into darkness. Children and adults hung nonchalantly from all parts of the train. In a corner of the carriage a group of men broke into song, drumming and clapping.

It was fascinating. But we did eventually decide to move back to second class when the cramped conditions became a little too much ... and a man next to us suffered a heart attack.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific's service to Sri Lanka varies according to the time of year.

Getting around: Sri Lanka offers many tours and trips but what really worked for us was designing our own journey. If you want to do that it's important to get a trustworthy driver, as traffic can be very dangerous and getting around the country independently is slow and difficult. You can contact Derik Buddah Koralage at +94 777069437 or srilankasurftours.com.

Babiche Martens flew to Sri Lanka with Cathay Pacific Airways.

- NZ Herald

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